Ethiopia: Let’s Start Fixing Western News Coverage
The biggest problem with Western reporting on Ethiopia is nobody ever learns a damn thing.
Take two of the worst examples when journalism had a direct impact on events in the country. In 1973, when Jonathan Dimbleby covered the Wollo famine with a British TV crew, he mixed the horrors of skeletal starving victims with shots of Emperor Haile Selassie at a state banquet in the palace. How subtle. The contrast naturally sparked disgust in Europe and stirred more resentment among student radicals in Addis.
Except the shots were misleading. The explorer Wilfred Thesiger knew the monarch personally, and he pointed out in his memoir that the banquet had been for a state visit by the president of Sudan, and “as all who were acquainted with him knew, Haile Selassie was personally very abstentious. I remember Princess Ruth, while dining with the Mansfields, remarking, ‘It’s a pleasant change to have a meal like this. You don’t know how simple and monotonous our food is in the palace.’”
Okay, some moron will pipe up that hey, these aristocrats had food while others starved, pal, and duh, yes, I know, but you’re completely missing the point. You can lay a lot of blame on the imperial court for being out of touch and incompetent in handling the situation. So, do it with facts, not images manipulated to shock and provoke.
But as I wrote above, nobody learns a damn thing. About ten years later, another famine in Ethiopia, another TV crew, this time with Michael Buerk reporting. Journalism Professor Suzanne Franks can explain the trouble more concisely than I can, so let me borrow a couple of paragraphs from a 2014article:
“In 1984 the authoritarian Ethiopian regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam was fighting a civil war against Tigrayan and Eritrean insurgents. It is no accident that these were the areas starving because, to a large extent, the government was deliberately causing the famine. It was bombing markets and trade convoys to disrupt food supply chains. Defence spending accounted for half of Ethiopia’s GDP and the Soviet-backed army was the largest in sub-Saharan Africa.
Yet this story of man-made misery was sidestepped. Instead, the reporting was about failing rains, which kept things simple for both journalists and aid agencies. This also suited an authoritarian government that did not want foreign journalists nosing around. The UK government also stuck to the simple narrative.”
Which brings us to the TPLF horror show of today, in which most of the Western journalists still want to keep it simple. Either all the Ethiopians are killing each other (the latest revision on Reuters coverage of Mai Kadra, still based on faulty raw material and premises) or there’s only one bad guy, the Ethiopian government, guilty of using starvation as a war crime — except when it doesn’t, as a European reporter recently, refreshingly demonstrated.
My bet is that the professors and Journalism Gods will not be kind twenty years down the road to Nima Elbagir over her reporting on Ethiopia. And she’ll have company. But instead of parsing both the clearly deliberate manipulations and the stunning incompetence, what should we do about it?
I have some thoughts.
Western reporting on Africa has to change. Like, now. We can start with examining some essential questions we should ask journalists.
Who is your story for?
Part of the problem is that the old journalism basics are still valuable, but they have never been examined carefully in terms of the impact of their approach on developing world nations. Right into the time when I began my sad, sometimes absurd career in journalism in the 1980s — in the era of reel-to-reel tape, typewriters and boxy computers with green letters along black screens — it was understood that you wrote for the folks back home. Covering Zambia? Well, what the hell do they know about Zambia in Tunbridge Wells or Pittsburgh? So, you were the great interpreter. Of their events. Of their culture. Of even how they think.
You didn’t have to give a damn what Zambians or Ethiopians or Somalis thought of your copy because they’d never see it.
Today, however, they can see it, yet many white, Western journos are still reporting about Africans as if their only readers are the folks back in Des Moines or Swindon.
I’ve hammered this point several times, and I’ll keep hammering away until I see change. Why do you find it necessary to talk to organizations like Amnesty and Human Rights Watch, with white executives in New York and London as spokespeople, when you can talk to Africans right there where you’re posted?
Even if many of us didn’t have a whole shopping list of issues for why you should stop talking to these idiots — whose research is littered with methodological mistakes, who blatantly use fake photos in their tweets about Ethiopia — your simply relying them on at all establishes a moral hierarchy and is…yes, downright fucking racist.
I’ve explained some of the big problems with these organizations before, but it boils down to the fact that you’re going to an outside entity — one that is not accountable to anyone but their big donors — to comment on the moral behavior of a sovereign state, instead of regularly assessing that behavior in part by how the country’s own citizens see it.
They are self-appointed judges of conduct, but the people you should be talking to about that conduct are other Africans, preferably in Africa. When you fall back on a quick quote from the organizations, you’re also damn lazy. You think nobody notices how often they’re used?
Why are you telling this story?
It hasn’t gone unnoticed that a substantial number of correspondents in Africa for top newspaper and wire services are white. I’d really love to hear these media operations tie themselves into pretzels as they attempt to justify this — especially since a few of the postings are fairly recent hires. Of course, race is less an issue than knowing the turf, politically and culturally, and if you know what the hell you’re talking about. But by that measure, a lot of these jobs should be still allocated to Africans. So why aren’t they?
I’m not sure if I’m the lone voice in the wilderness, but it seems to me that an obvious way to assess today’s journalism of Africa and Asia is to consider the reporting through the same lens we now use to evaluate cops. Academics pointed out ages ago that where police officers lived affected their attitudes; living away from the black districts they patrolled, bunkered in nice white suburbs, had an impact on their interactions with African Americans (to which African Americans could justifiably respond with “No shit, Sherlock”). So whether you’re white or black, why should I listen to you babbling about Ethiopia if your news bureau is based in Cape Town or Nairobi?
Then there are the “parachuters.” The reporter, often a freelancer, who flies in for a couple of weeks to go on his little Grand Tour and thinks he can size up a war or a major political crisis in that allotted time for GQ or The Atlantic or another big market. Now there aresome very good reporters who can do this, but everything depends on the individual’s maturity, skill set, and approach.
Let me tell you a quick anecdote. Sixteen years ago, I talked my way by email into teaching journalism for a brief while in Myanmar. An extraordinary experience which I will never forget, especially as I got to see a nation fixed in a time before a new wave of Western development changed it forever. Stories? Oh, I got stories.
But in the first days that I was there and getting my bearings, I hung out with a lovely, young Indian reporter who had flown in for a week to take the country’s temperature. And I noticed that she avoided answering my question on whether she had, in fact, even obtained a journalist’s visa or was working “below the radar.” She was nice company for a drink at the Strand Hotel or a wander through Scott Market, but she kept pestering me on what I thought of Burma. And she would not let up.
“Look, I literally have no opinions,” I protested. “How can I? I got off the friggin’ plane only two days ago!”
I could see that she was disappointed. I wish she’d seen how I was deeply concerned over a) whether she intended to quote me without my permission; b) why on Earth should my opinion matter when I didn’t live there? Why was I, the goofy white dude fresh off a plane from Heathrow, the default choice for objective analysis? c) how horrible it would have been if my views had been accepted, and if I had, say, steered her towards bad choices for sources, such as government stooges or propagandists, etc.
Unfortunately, even time spent in the country doesn’t always equate to understanding. Those who follow me on Twitter will be familiar with a self-described Marxist (alas, with a doctorate) who regurgitates academic terminology while spouting the most appalling ignorance about Ethiopian history. His most recent gaffe on Twitter was to weigh in on of the Afar people — Ethiopians tore him apart. He’s an academic, not a journalist, but he’s also a wonderful example of someone who should not be allowed to play near sharp objects or words.
Then there is a British guy who seems to think he’s the reincarnated Hemingway, who keeps bragging about his “on the ground reporting” in Tigray; he clearly doesn’t have a handle on things because he’s already retweeted an article about Haile Selassie that’s a stew of inaccuracies, and he’s pathetically asked Eritrean and Ethiopian officials to reach out to him (which begs the question of whether he talked to any officials while there and why he’s not simply following up with his old contacts).
The hubris of these individuals is mind-blowing. And of course, they can’t see it. It hasn’t occurred to them that they’re wrong, let alone that their comments and positions are offensive to literally millions of Ethiopians, not necessarily because they’ve chosen their side over Tigray — scores of people have done that, fine — but because they are so wilfully ignorant.
In both cases, there is no humility. Both would tell you that they still solicit opinions, they still talk to people to get information. I’m sure they do. But it’s so painfully obvious that they also still measure any new info in terms of their very narrow world view.
One of them treats the Tigray conflict like trying to shove an inflated air mattress into a toaster oven, if only events could be crammed into his theoretical bullshit. The other seems to want to notch Tigray in his belt as another adrenaline junkie experience, with the usual mental freight of Africa as an ooooh, scary place, with a conflict that has its clear good guys and bad guys.
Ego is a dangerous thing — so I consider it personally ironic that the British freelancer called me “dangerous,” and in my engagements with him online (before he blocked me) he kept demanding where I had done my journalism and bragging about the markets where he sold his work. The trap here is to even bother with such an irrelevant dick-measuring contest. In about ten years’ time, he may recognize why having a whole sheaf of great masthead clips will leave you hollow. For now, his logic is that by putting my stuff out on Medium, it’s not legit. I have no idea of this buffoon’s age, but such an attitude tells me a lot — that this guy doesn’t read a lot of history, at least not American history.
If he did, he would know about George Seldes, a brilliant reporter who wrote one of the most influential and damning early biographies of Mussolini and who covered the Russian Revolution and Spanish Civil War. Seldes got so frustrated with the mainstream papers spiking his copy or failing to cover important stories that he started his own subscription newsletter, In Fact, with stories that made the powerful in the U.S. veryuncomfortable.
The muckraking journalist I.F. Stone later followed his example and put out his own newsletter, I.F. Stone’s Weekly. And if you think self-publishing lessened the impact of the stories they did, I suggest you do a little homework — you got a big shock coming.
And that’s the thing. Back when I taught in Myanmar, the junta forced every journalist to be licensed, which is and should be anathema to those of us who want a free press. But at the same time, you can’t hold that view and then look down your nose at folks whom you think aren’t in your special club.
But if we look further into this clown’s profoundly snobbish and stupid logic, there’s a lesson here about Africa and all the mainstream Western media. For these major brands — struggling to keep revenue in an age of fractured audience — they really do still think their word is golden, unimpeachable. It doesn’t seem to occur to them just how Ethiopians were disgusted by the sense of entitlement Nima Elbagir displayed when she went through the melodramatic pantomime of throwing up her arms and calling out, “CNN! CNN!” at a routine checkpoint in Tigray.
And the snobbery and sense of entitlement carries over into their approach to Ethiopia. We don’t see the mainstream media look to Ethiopian news organizations for matching copy or for even tips, despite the fact that they have reported on the TPLF’s use of child soldiers and other developments that deserve mainstream follow-up. The reflexive counter to that would be “But they’re state-owned” or “they’re partisan.” Yes, true in several cases. But by its own admission, CNN accepted material from Tigrai Media House, a propagandist network with a clear ethnic agenda. Will Brown and Lucy Kassa’s white phosphorus story was fed to them through a posting by a highly questionable Twitter account.
This is why I can’t be bothered to give a damn about the Voice of America Amharic silliness first put out by The Intercept and then later matched by Zecharias Zelalem. It’s also funny how the respective news orgs went big with their headlines for this one, seemingly hoping it would be a bigger deal. But… seriously, who gives a shit?
I used to know an older news vet, Ron Tempest, who worked for Voice of America in the 1970s in Italy; it was clear from his recounting that only a fool could think of VOA as a legit news organization and not a propaganda factory, which is what it was always designed to be, right from its founding during the Second World War.
So now you guys are pissed that you found out the VOA doesn’t churn out the propaganda youwant?
Given that the overwhelming, relentless narrative in English from mainstream media favors the TPLF side, and that diaspora folks in North America and Europe don’t merely pay attention to VOA (do they at all?) but watch and listen to Ethiopian news channels via YouTube, social media, etc. who do you think this (shock, horror!) “slanted bias” is affecting? And I can guarantee that Ethiopians in Ethiopia aren’t hanging on your every word.
What is disturbing, even revolting, is the underlying premise behind these stories, that Ethiopians are little children who suck at the teat of a single news organization and who can’t navigate multiple information sources, nor come to an independent conclusion about events. If anything, however, the at-risk infants here are the American politicians, policy makers, a washed-up “former” CIA hack and others in the West who have done a whole freakin’ spectacular Simone Biles-like floor exercise to justify siding with the TPLF, a terrorist organization.
Hey, assholes, call me when you stop taking video from the propaganda arm of a terrorist group and do a story based on something you saw on ESAT.
A Fresh Start
A proposal: Let’s have a conference — no, not a Zoom thing, but a real, proper international conference when we’re all past Covid — on Western Journalism Ethics in Africa. To be held ideally in Addis Ababa, Abidjan or Gaborone.
Delegates could be reporters from the most respected newspapers, magazines, and broadcasting operations from across the continent, as well as respected academics in African Studies and experienced former diplomats. But the faces we wouldn’t see would be the New York Times or Reuters or the Telegraph or Deutsche Welle, et. al. And of course, they would either turn up their noses at such an event or sneer that it’s somehow discriminatory. But I don’t recall hearing that Black Lives Matter invited cops from the 15th Precinct to their strategy planning sessions. If you’re part of the damn problem, get the hell out of here.
On the agenda could be discussing how to create a code of conduct for foreign reporters that would be an obligation of their visas into African nations.And no, before someone freaks out, I am not suggesting their work product be censored at all. But just as we have “Defund the Police” reform efforts and Socially Responsible Tourism, we need Defund Big Media and Socially Responsible Journalism.
For example, if you’re covering a war zone or ethnic conflict within the country, what steps have you taken to protect your sources from retaliation after you leave? Oh, I see. You bugger off home, and Yonas here gets shot by the TPLF because he was seen with you ten minutes ago, and though he recited all their great talking points, maybe he didn’t perform as per their expectations.
Have you bothered to vet your fixer/translator to make sure he or she isn’t bent? In fact, where the hell did you get this individual from? How much experience do they have? Do they already work as an independent journalist within the country? (Some do, while others don’t.)
It would be nice, for instance, if like accredited tourist guides in some countries — because in some ways they are guides — a fixer needs to pass some internationally recognized standard of training. This doesn’t have to necessarily come from the state apparatus of the African country itself, nor should their stamp of approval make the difference. But things would vastly improve and be in African countries’ interests if nations agreed to recognize one or more groups that supplied accreditation.
Encouraging African leaders, officials, and experts to push the BBC, Reuters, New York Times to the back of the line where they belong. African reporters first. They get first slots for one-on-one interviews, they get the front seats at the big news conferences, their credentials get stamped first.
A real eye-opener was an article I read a while back, if memory serves, on how a French or maybe it was a Canadian reporter was assigned to cover Washington, and he could not secure a place within the White House press briefing room. These are primo slots, and naturally, the chairs are reserved for the home team big leaguers like CNN, NBC, Washington Post and so on. The poor correspondent had to write up his stories by watching the White House briefing on C-SPAN. So, why shouldn’t Africa favor its own sons and daughters?
It’s understandable that African leaders want their message to get out to the Western world, especially if their nations are dependent on U.S. and European trade, aid, weapons, etc. They might think the Guardian’s opinion matters. They shouldn’t. All that matters is whether the genuine facts about a country reach those who need to hear them, and Ethiopia’s current dilemma is another infuriating example of the God Who Failed. And the Western Journalism God will keep on failing until someone kicks him off his pedestal.
Ethiopia has been working on the innocent assumption and extraordinary patience that if Americans and Europeans have enough time, sooner or later, they’ll get it — they’ll pick up the trail and find the truth.
But the reality is that these Western journalists won’t be forced to find the truth until what I call the “WMD Moment.” It happened in Iraq, but by the time it did, a whole country was almost reduced to rubble.
The pattern will repeat itself — bank on it. The idiots will help create another war. As we’ve learned with policing, museums, academia, entertainment, the cultural biases only change when there is close to an unstoppable force of collective will, of communal effort, to make things change.
What disgusts me is how Western media appropriates the moral high ground, presuming that only their reporters can interpret Africa, and should anyone question their methods, let alone their chosen correspondents, we all suddenly need to thumb on a keyboard, #JournalismIsNotACrime.
But Journalism is a crime when your sorry white ass is sitting on stories that need to be told, and you won’t tell them. It is a crime, as well as a travesty, when you suppress information and share propaganda that can destabilize nations. You’re not a noble advocate for a free press, you’re a used car salesman, and no, I’m not buying that your wheezy, broken-down ’78 Lada is really a nice, new BMW.
There is no reason anymore for a global audience to keep viewing African nations through the fogged-up lenses of Western journalism.
A Kenyan reporter in Nairobi or a Ugandan reporter in Kampala sure as hell doesn’t need the filter of Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch to tell them what’s going on in their backyards. They can do that thing… what d’ya call it, that journalism thing, you know the one… reporting. It’s different than being a stenographer. You talk in person to real people who are experiencing events rather than the white idiot in Norway with a degree who has an agenda.
We’ll see fewer white faces “interpreting” Africa from abroad when more brown faces in Africa get to ask the questions.
We’ll see more accurate and enlightening stories about Africa, including more positive ones, when Africans control more of the narrative consumed by the West.
And we’ll get much better stories on Africa when reporters from the West change their thinking, drop their assumptions, and gain more historical knowledge about African countries and their cultures.
I’ve tossed out a few starting points, but this is a conference that I hope will someday happen.